ESA buys the worlds-first debris removal mission from ClearSpace

Space Coast, FL – Yesterday, ESA (European Space Agency) announced they signed an €86 million contract with an industrial team led by Swiss start-up, ClearSpace SA. This purchase is for a unique service. The first removal of an item of space debris from orbit.

ClearSpace-1 captures Vespa | illustration: ClearSpace SA

Clear Space in 2025

Slated for NET 2025, ClearSpace will launch the first active debris removal mission, ClearSpace-1. It will meet, seize and take down for reentry the upper part of a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter). This object was left in a ‘gradual disposal’ orbit (approx. altitude 801 km by 664 km) and complying with space debris mitigation regulations, following the second flight of Vega in 2013.

This will be a new way for ESA to do business. Paying for such a service contract rather than directly procuring and running the entire mission, this will be a first step in establishing a new commercial sector in space.

ClearSpace itself will be raising the remainder of the mission cost through commercial investors. ESA is also contributing key technologies for flight. Developed as part of the agency’s Clean Space initiative through its Active Debris Removal/ In-Orbit Servicing project, ADRIOS.

Included is advanced guidance, navigation and control systems and vision-based AI, allowing the chaser satellite to close safely on the target, autonomously. It also has robotic arms to achieve capture.

Proba-V fixed to the Vespa (Vega secondary payload adapter), above Vietnam’s VNREDSat-1 Earth observation satellite and the ESTCube-1 Estonian student nanosatellite. | photo: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Video du CSG

Difficult Achievements Forth

“Think of all of the orbital captures that have occurred up until this point and they have all taken place with cooperative, fully-controlled target objects”

“With space debris, by definition no such control is possible: instead the objects are adrift, often tumbling randomly.”

“So this first capture and disposal of an uncooperative space object represents an extremely challenging achievement. But with overall satellite numbers set to grow rapidly in the coming decade, regular removals are becoming essential to keep debris levels under control, to prevent a cascade of collisions that threaten to make the debris problem much worse.”

– Jan Wörner – ESA Director General

“At orbital velocities, even a screw can hit with explosive force, which cannot be shielded against by mission designers; instead the threat needs to be managed through the active removal of debris items.”

“Our ‘tow truck’ design will be available to clear key orbits of debris that might otherwise make them unusable for future missions, eliminating the growing risks and liabilities for their owners, and benefitting the space industry as a whole. Our goal is to build affordable and sustainable in-orbit services.”

– Luc Piguet, founder and CEO of ClearSpace

“The plan is that this pioneering capture forms the foundation of a recurring business case, not just for debris removal by responsible space actors around the globe, but also for in-orbit servicing: these same technologies will also enable in-orbit refuelling and servicing of satellites, extending their working life. Eventually, we envisage this trend extending into in-orbit assembly, manufacturing and recycling.”

– Luisa Innocenti, Head of ESA’s Clean Space Office
ClearSpace-1, rendezvous, capture and take down for reentry the upper part of a Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) from Europe’s Vega launcher.| illustration: ClearSpace SA

The ClearSpace-1 mission will first be launched into a lower 500 km orbit for commissioning and critical tests. This will be before being raised to the target orbit for rendezvous and capture using a quartet of robotic arms, flying under ESA supervision. The combined ‘space robot’ chaser plus the Vespa target will then be deorbited to burn up in the atmosphere.

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